Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Neha Bhatt, D.C.'s pedestrian advocate, speaks on our walkability challenges

June 15, 2012 - 10:12 AM
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Pedestrian safety is an evolving concept in our modern cities. Washington, D.C. has attempted to prioritize the pedestrian, and two years ago, formed the Pedestrian Advisory Council, which meets regularly on these issues of walking and safety and testifies before the D.C. Council and engages the community on how to make the District a more walkable place. Our city has hundreds upon hundreds of pedestrian crashes a year, with several deaths, and we're still sorting out all the causes and solutions. In some parts of D.C., about half of all households lack any personal automobiles and instead rely on alternative modes — first and foremost each member's own two feet.

Neha Bhatt serves as chair of the D.C. Pedestrian Advisory Council, and I've watched her speak many times before the D.C. Council on how we should be approaching these crucial questions. Bhatt's insight covers how D.C. uses street cameras, our changing population, its pedestrian-friendly design and engineering, and myriad other transportation topics worth watching. Here's her thoughts on where the city is and where it needs to move next. 

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(Photo: flickr/foxymoron)

TBD On Foot: People often emphasize the importance of "livable, walkable" cities. To what extent would you say D.C. fits the bill?

Neha Bhatt: D.C. is a jewel. It’s no coincidence one-third of our households do not own cars (D.C. DMV) and 12% of our residents walk to their jobs (U.S. Census). We’ve been recognized in the top-10 list of most walkable U.S. cities (Walkscore.org), and we’ve become national leaders in bicycling infrastructure and car-sharing. This is all possible because D.C. built a diverse transportation network and has been smart about putting jobs, shopping, and schools together in walkable neighborhoods. All of these destinations are part of our neighborhood — not the case in so many other cities. No doubt, we have plenty of work to do and mistakes to correct, especially in our underserved neighborhoods; but the fact remains D.C. is highly attractive even in these difficult economic times to employers, businesses, and new residents.  

On Foot: Tell me a bit about your work with the D.C. Pedestrian Advisory Council. How and when did you get involved and how would you describe your responsibilities?

Bhatt: The Pedestrian Advisory Council (PAC) serves as the advisory body to the mayor and Council of the District of Columbia on pedestrian safety and accessibility issues. I joined in spring of 2010, when the PAC first launched. I live east of the Anacostia River where transportation options are fewer and walking all the more important. Even when amenities are limited, walkability increases access, choices, and the overall neighborhood experience. A walkable street unlocks all sorts of potential — safety, reduced crime, business opportunity, community building. We want more of these things for all D.C. neighborhoods, and especially in our underserved neighborhoods. I saw the PAC as a chance to get involved in a productive way.

Over the past two years, the PAC has focused on building relationships with the police department to tackle the difficult issue of increasing enforcement of our traffic safety laws. We testify regularly at oversight and budget hearings and offer policy recommendations, and we’ve mapped pedestrian crashes and prepared an analysis of the deadliest D.C. intersections (to be released this summer). Monitoring implementation of the city’s Pedestrian Master Plan is another important activity. We have many more ideas; however, we must prioritize as most of the 13 councilmember-appointed PAC members work full time and are civically active otherwise. Anyone is welcome to join us and help move the ball forward. We usually meet monthly at 6:00 p.m. every second Monday at 441 4th Street NW (Judiciary Square Metro).

On Foot: Who are the biggest advocates for pedestrians out there now in the D.C. region?

Bhatt: Many names come to mind. On the D.C. Council, Councilmembers Tommy Wells and Mary Cheh are consistently good on the policy side. They are not only receptive on pedestrian issues, they lead. Within government, there are some very dedicated individuals such as Chris Shaheen in the Office of Planning and George Branyan (D.C. Pedestrian Manager) and the entire DDOT active transportation team. Lisa Sutter and Lt. Breul from MPD continue to be strong partners in the effort to make the city safer for pedestrians. Groups like the Coalition for Smarter Growth and neighborhood and regional blogs such as Greater Greater Washington have played key roles in raising awareness and prioritizing walkability in public decision-making. Civic leaders doggedly fighting to make their neighborhoods safer are the unsung and most critical advocates. People like Carolyn Ward (Ward 8) and Marlene Berlin (Ward 3) inspire me because they are very active locally, and they recognize the role of safe streets in their neighborhoods. They could easily retire from civic activities and be proud of what they’ve already accomplished, yet they continue to stay involved and lead. Both currently serve on the PAC.

(Continue reading the Q&A with Neha Bhatt after the jump)

On Foot: Has walking in the District gotten safer or more dangerous in recent years?

Bhatt: Over the longer term, D.C. is safer for pedestrians for the simplest of reasons. Empty streets are unsafe, vibrant streets are very much safer. In the past decade, many struggling neighborhoods have been revitalized and 100,000 new neighbors have moved to D.C. [Editor's Note: A reader notes that while D.C. outlined a goal of adding 100,000 residents by 2014 back in 2003, the reality is we've only added about 50,000 neighbors at most so far]. The increase of feet and eyes on more city streets is possibly the greatest factor in improved pedestrian safety.

In recent years the city has double-downed on livability investments such as strategic sidewalk expansions, streetscaping projects, and over 1,500 pedestrian countdown signals (the most of any major city). Yet pedestrian crashes have gone up in the past two years. On average, around 650 people are hit by a car each year. It was 753 people in 2010 and an astonishing 942 people last year according to MPD. This is too way high. We can do better. If a safer city is our goal, we have to get these numbers down.

On Foot: Gabe Klein, the former head of the District Department of Transportation, now hopes to reduce Chicago's traffic fatalities to zero within a decade. What actions would D.C. have to do in order to eliminate traffic fatalities?

Bhatt: Ah, Gabe, we certainly do miss him. Places like Chicago and NYC are setting bold targets with the full support of their mayors for whom these are legacy issues. They are not one-agency efforts nor are they unfunded mandates, which is the key. It would be a phenomenal boost for D.C. to go after similarly ambitious safety goals. For it to work, it would require prioritization and redirection of resources. MPD and DDOT would have significant roles to play and their directors would need to be fully on board pushing the effort, setting much higher benchmarks for their staff and the products they produce. The good infrastructure trends in D.C.’s core would need to spread aggressively to the outer neighborhoods. More capital spending would need to be leveraged to fully complete the city’s walking and biking networks. A robust "share the road" media campaign and consistent enforcement of traffic laws would be critical. Other agencies' roles would need to be defined and the mayor's office would have to manage the execution of the full plan, holding everyone accountable. All this requires a visionary leader who will make something like zero traffic fatalities a citywide initiative. I don’t see the right ingredients right now for D.C. to join the ranks of Chicago and NYC, unfortunately. But I’d love to be proven wrong, and when I am, that leader is going to find a lot of support from neighborhood leaders everywhere.

On Foot: In what ways does engineering and design play a part in pedestrian safety? The streetscaping efforts?

Bhatt: There are certain things we know to be true. Narrower lanes make motorists want to drive slower, so does a tighter turning angle at an intersection. Wide sidewalks with covered bus shelters, benches, and stormwater-absorbing bio-swales attract pedestrians (and store customers!). Bike lanes and bike boxes give would-be cyclists an added level of confidence, and they remind motorists the road is designed for all, not only cars. Sidewalk bulbouts at intersections put pedestrians and motorists within each other’s lines of sight. Good engineering effectively guides people in how to coexist on the city’s streets. It’s essential, and D.C. has to keep pushing itself on the design front. Pedestrian safety is not possible without top-notch engineering.

On Foot: D.C. Mayor Vince Gray has remarked that "eventually we hope to be able to cover the entire city" with speed and red light traffic cameras. What's your take on these cameras and would you support that vision? They seem to provoke some strong reactions.

Bhatt: Traffic cameras save lives, prevent injuries, and prevent car damage. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety studied the effect of D.C.’s 2001 photo enforcement program. They found vehicles exceeding the speed limit by more than 10 mph (the point at which a ticket is usually warranted) dropped by an astonishing 82%. Intended outcome achieved. As for Mayor Gray’s provocative statements about blanketing the city, let’s put that in perspective. I believe the expansion is supposed to yield something like 70-80 more cameras, roughly doubling what’s in place now. D.C. literally has thousands of intersections and thousands of miles of traffic lanes. It’s more a light sprinkling than a blanketing. But it’s strategic, and the expansion is going to regulate things like illegal turns, failure to stop at stop signs or yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, and blocking the box (which is enormously annoying if you’ve ever been the motorist who just got the green light but can’t go anywhere because three impatient drivers got their cars stuck in the middle of the intersection).

If Mayor Gray really is just looking for a revenue stream to plug a budget gap, I say let’s sabotage his plan (though I don’t know how nefarious a goal it is to want to keep the city running). If we all start driving the speed limit his plot will be foiled. After all, they advertise online and on the street where the cameras are. We can have the last laugh.

On Foot: What are the great challenges in advocating for pedestrian safety?

Bhatt: I wish councilmembers would take pedestrian safety more seriously. Wells, Cheh, and [new Council Chair Phil] Mendelson should be commended for working actively on this issue, but others are mostly missing in action. I understand pedestrian safety is not a glamorous topic, but it is important to neighborhood quality. I learned recently the police department gets profoundly more complaints about traffic problems than crime. Even people who walk away with relatively minor injuries from a crash are traumatized, and so are the motorists. Vehicle-pedestrian crashes are violent events. You would think an elected leader whose jurisdiction has many dozen such incidents every year would be more interested in getting those numbers down. Councilmembers have busy schedules and they tend to zip around in their cars to make the numerous events and meeting invitations they get. It becomes easy to lose the pedestrian perspective. Crashes become a cold statistic, and only a fatality garners attention or a site visit. Sadly, most Pedestrian Advisory Council’s members have had trouble getting face time with the councilmember who appointed them, myself included. This is frustrating and a real opportunity missed on the part of councilmembers. How valuable it would be if they left the car at home one workday a week and experienced the city the way so many of their constituents do every day. It could be game-changing if they’d be up for a challenge like that.

On Foot: Yet our local government has issued some strong rhetoric about the virtues of traveling on foot. The city, as part of the mayor's Sustainable D.C. plans, wants three out of every four trips car-free within 20 years. In your work with the D.C. Council, agencies, and offices, is the government committed to this rhetoric?

Bhatt: I do believe D.C. is committed to increasing walkability and the three out of every four trips on foot in 20 years is a great goal. I believe agencies like DDOT and Office of Planning are very invested and have talented staff. The MPD (which has a much larger role than they seem to realize) are expressing interest, but there is little evidence of an action plan. I don’t think most of the City Council fully understands the walkability vision, even if they don’t explicitly disagree with it. They don’t own nor have they adopted the car-free goal, and this can pose a problem. Success will require coordinated policy decisions with budget implications. Last year’s budget didn’t look that different to me than previous years. The pedestrian plan is a good first phase plan, but the city will take 10 years to execute it. The investment levels are not in line with the car-free rhetoric. A city like D.C. has so much latent potential when it comes to walkability. As committed as we are to increasing walkability, I don’t think we have gotten nearly serious enough to reach the mayor’s 20-year goal.

On Foot: We have so many modes of transportation now — bikes, cars, taxis, buses, walkers, and so on. What's the role of responsibility out there on the roads?

Bhatt: Be nice, be courteous. If most people on the street operate this way, we would be good to go. Being courteous requires being alert and often patient. When I’m crossing the street I sometimes wait for the car to go first because the driver had the right of way. I’ll frequently wave a thank you to the driver waiting to let me pass. They almost always wave back. We acknowledge each other, and that reminds us both we’re just on our way somewhere, one is not out to get in the way of the other.

One time or another, we’ve all seen the indignant pedestrian/cyclist/motorist/cab driver get angry for being held accountable for a traffic violation (either by a fellow civilian, an officer, or camera). I believe this is a small subset of people out on the streets and most accept responsibility even if they didn’t enjoy being called out. Pedestrians can’t jut out onto busy roads without looking around. Cyclists need to follow the rules of the road so that everyone else can reasonably predict their movements. Motorists need to be especially careful because they are encased in thousands of pounds of machinery. A mistake could mean curtains for a fellow human being. Collectively as a population, we’ve formed some bad habits. We have the ability to unlearn those, so long as people are wiling to take responsibility of their actions. I think most people are.

On Foot: I live in Petworth and I constantly see people walking across Georgia Avenue illegally and often dangerously. How to solve a problem like that? Should the police be writing tickets for jaywalking? Is it a matter of education?


Bhatt:
Bad pedestrian behavior concentrated on a street or intersection has to be corrected. It’s a real hazard for motorists on that street. Jaywalking tickets and warnings are very appropriate, and that kind of enforcement needs to be consistent and recurring until the culture changes. Education should be part of the plan. We have signs reminding drivers about the $250 fine for failing to yield to pedestrians. Why not signs at trouble hot spots reminding pedestrians of the consequences if they do the wrong thing? When lots of pedestrians are violating traffic law at a single location, it may also be an indicator of an engineering problem. Sometimes people actually feel safer crossing illegally because the designated intersection is not optimal. Other times the most natural or shortest distance between two significant destinations (like a major bus stop and a school) may be the illegal one. The street should be evaluated to see if a design fix is needed. We need to get a MPD/DDOT team out to that Petworth spot and figure out a solution.

On Foot: The most vulnerable navigators of our transportation system seem to be the elderly, children, and sometimes those with disabilities. How do you consider those vulnerabilities as an advocate for pedestrian safety?

Bhatt: My own interest in pedestrian safety stems from a deeper interest in seeing the city’s entire transportation system work better, which has huge economic and equity implications. If streets don’t work for seniors and children, I believe all the larger goals are at risk. Seniors and children have to be the standard in pedestrian safety. Given that about 8,000 Americans turn 65 every day (AARP) and a lot of them are looking to settle in places like D.C., we better make sure our definition of pedestrian safety includes this group. Otherwise, we are setting ourselves up for tragedy.

On Foot: Tell me a little about the Pedestrian Advisory Council's new website. How'd that come about and what should concerned residents out there do to get involved with pedestrian safety?

Bhatt:
After going two years without any kind of web site, we realized it was high time we fixed that. We used free online software to create www.walkdcwalk.org. People can go here to connect to the sidewalk repair page or contact their councilmember or the mayor. Folks can also get acquainted with the city’s pedestrian plan, brush up on traffic law basics, and learn what the Pedestrian Advisory Council is doing. We will be posting summaries and take-aways from key hearings and meetings. There is also a "Tell Your Story" feature. Anyone is invited to share stories about crashes they experienced or witnessed — from the pedestrian, cyclist, or driver perspective. We’ve gotten a few stories already and we’re looking for more. If there are any web-savvy pedestrian safety advocates out there, we are looking for help managing the site, too.

Read more about Bhatt's work on on the Pedestrian Advisory Council website here and D.C.'s pedestrian safety efforts here.

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